A Time for Contemplation, Cantatas and Carols
by Victoria Looseleaf
Were he alive today, his popularity would, no doubt, rival that of Diddy, Bono and the Pope, his image beamed world-wide in media of all stripes: in Times Square, 20 stories high, that famous wiggy silhouette dances joyously with an iPod; he's also smiling haughtily from the pages of Vogue under the banner, "What becomes a legend most."
He is, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach, the original sonic blingmeister. A workaholic, who, ever anxious and self-motivated, was not only an organist, choir master, music teacher, court musician and boys' school instructor, but, in addition to fathering 20 children, managed to compose an astounding number of masterpieces that continue to rule the musical firmament more than 250 years after his death.
And so we celebrate this time of year with a musical swag bag that cannot be complete without Bach's Christmas Oratorio. For Chorale scenesters in the know, this is the fifth installment - Cantata No. 5, BWV 248 - in the cycle that Maestro Grant Gershon began in 2002 and will complete next year. The magnificent work, about three hours if performed in one sitting (call it the War and Peace of oratorios), is really six cantatas that were performed, as Bach intended, at six different times between Christmas Day and the feast of Epiphany (traditionally, January 6). Bach had already written the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, and having turned 45 in 1730, suffered a kind of midlife crisis: fed up with life in Leipzig, he didn't have the option of buying a Porsche, but stayed put, illuminating the fact he never ventured more than 200 miles from his hometown, Eisenach. Talk about an interior life! And so, in 1734, the multi-hyphenate began composing his Christmas Oratorio. No.5, Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Let your glory be sung out, oh God), was meant for the Sunday after New Year, its 21-minute, 10 movement framework here featuring 60 singers (three times that of Bach's day), accompanied by an orchestra of 35. The text - Three Wise Men arriving from the East (symbolized by the trio for soprano, alto and tenor with a solo violin obligato), speaking to King Herod about the Child - springs to brilliant life, predominantly in A Major. The structure contains vivid alto/Evangelist recitatives, a bass aria highlighted by a haunting oboe d'amore solo, and luminous chorales. Opening with the chorus in contrapuntal mode punctuated by a three-beat, neo-dance rhythm, it is jauntiness squared and a bookend to the closing chorale setting (which had been preceded by the final recitative praising Jesus) - a perfect ribbon on this Christmas gift of grace and beauty.
"An artist has to be careful to never think that he's arrived somewhere. He has to be in a constant state of becoming," said Bob Dylan, poet and icon of a generation. Thus, props to Dietrich Buxtehude, Bach's predecessor and spiritual father, who, though a Dane by birth (ca. 1637- 1707), because of his organ music, including numerous toccatas, fugues, chaconnes and pieces based on chorales, brought North German organ composition to its apex. The jury is still out, however, on whether Bach and Buxtehude actually met, but it's easy to picture them commiserating over steins of beer, gabbing about their respective church organist gigs. After all, Buxtehude put in nearly 40 years at St. Mary's in Lübeck, his musical autonomy a model for careers of later Baroque masters, including George Frideric Handel, with parallels today in Houston rapper Bun B paving the path for Slim Thug. And though he never held a position requiring him to compose vocal music (alas, many of his works have been lost), Buxtehude did leave more than 120 vocal pieces that featured a wide range of texts, scorings, genres and styles, including the seven-minute Das neugebor'ne Kindelein (the infant Jesus). Accompanied by pristine strings (minus viola) and continuo, the three-part opus is written in varying degrees of allegro, its textures and nee-ornamental style making this stirring number both a stand-alone musical gem and an ideal prelude to Bach's cantata.
Carols, whether warm and fuzzy or pure and sacred, also connote Christmas, although they weren't initially specific to winter or the holiday that is now so emblematic of consumerism. (Eschew gifting a flat screen plasma and give, instead, Music From and Inspired by 'Get Rich or Die Tryin', the motion picture or Kate Bush's long-awaited Aerial.) In any case, the word comes from the French, carole, a dance done in a circle that was believed to be derived from ancient pagan rites. The term became known for songs that had a kind of call and response, which then turned into verse and refrain. Carols or round dances became popular for numerous festivals, eventually becoming holiday-oriented. Today the form is as varied as Christian Dior's spring collection, with carols- often performed a capella - generally considered any short piece having to do with winter celebrations. For Moses Hogan, his Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King takes the form of an arrangement of the spiritual, Go Tell It On the Mountain, while Leo Nestor's Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow allows sopranos to shine, with a dollop of oboe enhancing the soundscape. Emile Desamours' Noel Ayisyen (A Haitian Noel), is a three minute journey of fly and flashy jazz-type riffing that kicks off with tongue-clicks in this homage to calypso culture. More traditional but no less rousing is Stephen Paulus' 18-minute Christmas Tidings. Set to strings, the 1989 suite is a new way of hearing five favorite carols, including Good King Wenceslas, What Child Is This, and an audience participation version of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Punctuated with varying meters, running thirds and sixths and accented eighth-note chords, the score is as bubbly as a glass of Veuve Clicquot. Also relatively new to the carol scene: Steven Sametz' Two Medieval Lyrics, a 1995 commission for Chanticleer from Terry Knowles and Marshall Rutter. Opening with the mystical, There Is No Rose of Such Virtue, the fusion of text and melody propels the listener to a place of peace, providing a wondrous contrast to Gaudete, (rejoice), the second setting, whose deliberate Renaissance references teem with fiery spirit. Finally, there is the world premiere of Jason Robert Brown's eight-minute rock-and-rollish, Chanukah Suite. Using traditional Hebrew songs as a point of departure, the hot young Broadway composer drapes up and drips out the tunes with up-tempo rhythms, harmonic fanfares and the occasional Leonard Bernstein-like chordal majesty. Sublimely fresh, yet rooted to the past, Brown's exuberant work - indeed, the entire program -soothes our souls and touches our hearts, connecting us to ancient traditions and a world of hope and love. Go forth, then, and sing with joy.